I don’t know about you, but when I hear that the place we are going to be staying at is a former army barracks, my first thoughts are of being woken in the freezing cold dawn to do push-ups while a man in a buzz cut yells at me. Thankfully, the good sybarite-friendly people that run the Cavallo Point Lodge aren’t as crazy as to think the same, so instead they have created a serene and welcoming environment perfect for enjoying the Sausalito bay area of San Francisco.
The former Fort Baker has been sustainably restored to a level of sophisticated comfort that will have you wanting to enlist as soon as possible. This sweeping patch of federal land on the edge of Golden Gate National Park makes for a unique luxury hotel setting. Built on what was once a US army base, whitewashed old military quarters with red roofs and wrap-around porches form half of the digs. The other half of the rooms are contemporary, newly constructed from entirely renewable resources, with views of the Golden Gate itself.
Don’t panic when you’re handed a torch to get around at night: this is the one – and only – campsite similarity. At Cavallo Point, there may be no escaping the military heritage in the unused parade grounds, mismatched building numbers and signs to Fort Baker. These days though, the natural wonders of the green, green national park is what speaks loudest, and the estate’s a sight for scenery fans.
Having checked in at the main building (as is often the case, you can’t access your room until 4pm), it is but a short stroll up the hill to our accommodation. At least that’s what Mrs Smith and I are told: this pair have decided to take full advantage of the golf cart shuttle service, so we can’t accurately tell you ourselves. Carry on, driver.
There is barely enough time to enjoy our in-room fireplace (while dressed in the stupidly comfortable robe and slippers provided), before we each galvanise our inner Action Man to make full use of at least one of the many hiking trails around the lodge. One in particular winds up the back of the property, at Mount Tamalpais, where you get a properly rock-star view of San Francisco proper, as well as Alcatraz and that looming iconic suspension bridge.Backdropped by redwood forest, looking out a the Pacific Ocean, the panorama near took our breath away... although that might have been our fitness levels on that hiking trail. Ahem. Where are those darned golf buggies when you really need them?
I continue down the track to Horseshoe Cove where I spot a harbor seal. It is either that or an especially unattractive swimmer. Mrs Smith, meanwhile, is making like a beached creature in the Healing Arts Spa enjoying everything from a massage to hypnotherapy, revelling in the landscaped pool area. Note: this is a meditation pool, meaning it is a place for peacefully dipping into its heated waters to soak your stresses away, not, as Mrs Smith tells me, for the usual Mr Smith trick of bombing off a diving board shouting ‘Honey, look at me!’
The relaxation powers of this spa hits you in the face like a fluffy pillow, the instant you enter a waiting area that resembles a lavish library with an adjoining exotic tearoom. ‘Be sure to set aside an hour or two around your treatment time to make full use of all that this gorgeous spa has to offer,’ Mrs Smith has told me. ‘I certainly could have used an extra half hour to finish the modern art work I was happily colouring in from the books and crayons provided, while waiting for my name to be called,’ she added, earnestly. Well, this is California after all.
Now – the Murray Circle. This restaurant is as historic as the hotel; you can only imagine the secretive wartime conversations that once took place here. Dinner at this more serious of the two eateries is a must, especially after a few drinks on the veranda of the adjacent Farley Bar (where to go for snacks and cocktails). The likes of the raised lamb and Dungeness crab are so delectable the only sane thing to do after this initiation to chef Joseph Humphrey’s cooking is to request our dessert be his tasting selection. If sinful puds are a court-martialing offense, then that espresso mousse cake will be putting chef Humphrey away for good. Or, as is more likely the case, it will soon be earning him another medal in the form of a Michelin star.
So special is the dining experience you may find you want to have a pop at appropriating some of their kitchen’s skills yourself. The good news: the Lodge even provides cookery lessons. Yup: cooking classes. Isn’t that the coolest idea thing? 20 people all getting hands-on with the all-organic ingredients for a fun three hours in a bright, friendly environment that’ll improve your culinary skills, whatver your expertise. If I managed to leave with all my fingers intact, then anyone can do it.
As we return to our room to pick up where our slippers and fireplace left off, one traditional military term seemed to fit, summing the whole experience up perfectly: at ease, soldier.
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Smith extra at Cavallo Point
US$50 to put towards spa treatments (not merchandise)